Our guest today is Dawn Davis, author of the historical fiction, The Tree of Life. Dawn is a writer living and working in Toronto, Canada. Before becoming a writer, Davis worked as a teacher after completing her education at York University and the University of Toronto. The Tree of Life is Davis’ debut novel and the first book in her Tower Room series.
As The Tree of Life opens, Charlotte Hansen and her friend, Henry Jacobs, are hanging out in the old mansion where Charlotte and Leo, her grandfather, live. Henry is there to practice the piano, and Charlotte is waiting for him to finish so that she can supervise his work on a massive school project researching the 1930s. When Leo leaves the house to pick up his friend Gwendolyn Fenton—whom Charlotte does not like—the two eleven-year-olds prepare tea and cookies for the grown-ups’ visit and then rush to the Tower Room. The room is located on the top floor of the mansion. Charlotte is not allowed in the room without permission; but she is headstrong and ignores the directive. After leaving the tray of tea and sweets on the tabletop, Charlotte pulls Henry underneath the table with her.
The children soon hear Gwendolyn telling Leo about a magical brooch from her childhood. Suddenly, a large hand grabs Charlotte, who clutches Henry tightly before the hand thrusts the pair into nothingness. After Charlotte regains consciousness, she and Henry meet the younger version of Gwendolyn, a spoiled force of nature determined to appropriate the brooch her late mother left her brother. The friends learn that they are still in Rose Park, the neighborhood they both call home, but the year is 1939.
As Charlotte and Henry realize that they have traveled backward to move forward, the purpose of their time travel is revealed: Charlotte is there to help Gwendolyn resolve the pain of her past. During the adventure, Henry advocates against the anti-Semitism and racism of that time, and Charlotte learns to look beyond her own desires to help a person in need.
The idea for The Tree of Life and the Tower Room series came to the author after she attended a centennial celebration at her daughters’ school. “What might happen,” Davis thought, “if two children lived their research instead of simply reading about it? This one step outside the restrictions of time became the foundation for the series.”
As in The Tree of Life, the next three books will highlight different time periods in Canadian history, with the one constant being the appearance of Charlotte and Henry. Although the children will appear in each book with different names and bodies, they will be easily recognizable as eternal soul mates, and the harbingers of love and connection for those who have stumbled and lost their way.
Dorothy Thompson: Thank you for this interview, Dawn. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
Dawn Davis: I grew up in Barrington, Illinois, attended New York University and then moved to Toronto, Ontario. This was to be a temporary move but I got a job with the Criminology Department at the University of Toronto, went back to school to complete my degree and began teaching. I married, raised two daughters and became a Canadian citizen in 2001. Canada is now my home. When I retired from teaching I became a student again and now I take jazz and classical piano lessons with two great teachers.
I have been writing most of my life. I kept journals, wrote poems, articles on teaching music to children, reflections, letters, comedy sketches and two detective novels. There were many breaks during the writing of The Tree of Life and many times when I thought to abandon it altogether. Thanks to the kindness and great editorial skills of both Ann Ireland and Warren Layberry I finished and published the book in June of 2015.
D.T.: Can you tell us briefly what your book is about?
D.D.: Two children, Charlotte Lisa Hansen and Henry Jacobs, become accidental travelers when they hide beneath a table in the Tower Room, the top floor of the old house where Charlotte lives with her Grandfather, Leo, and overhear a conversation they were not meant to hear. They awake in a summerhouse belonging to the MacFarlane family, a room filled with Tom Mix posters and Shirley Temple dolls and find themselves under the authority of Gwendolyn MacFarlane, an autocratic youngster their own age. The time is May 1939, the wireless is abuzz with reports of King George and Queen Elizabeth’s arrival in Canada, and the threat of another European war is imminent.
Charlotte soon discovers she must complete a task before she and Henry are allowed to return to their own time. She must find and preserve an antique brooch, without being told why this seemingly pointless job is so important. Charlotte and Henry meet many people who help or hinder and during the journey they are changed in ways they could never have imagined.
D.T.: Why did you choose your particular genre?
D.D.: I would have to say this genre chose me – Charlotte and Henry appeared in my mind and began to tell me a story about their adventures. I like writing about children because they are innocent, truthful, and resourceful. They can also be amazingly mean when they feel threatened, perfect examples of the fight or flight mentality. Adults rarely notice that children are always watching and listening and trying to find out what their place is in the world. Children also believe in magic and their imaginations have no limits.
D.T.: Do you ever experience self-doubts with your work?
D.D.: I experience self-doubts constantly. I even hesitate to call myself a writer. I am a harsh critic of my own work and often feel I have failed to convey what Charlotte and Henry are trying to tell me. I don’t believe I could write if I felt assured and supremely confident. To me vulnerability and trying to find my own voice go hand in hand. Sending a book out into the world is rather frightening but the work is done on this one, I can’t change a word, and now I have to stand back and let it go.
D.T.: Where do you write? Do you have a favorite place?
D.D.: I write in my office that overlooks the ravine. This is one of my favorite spots because I can see the wind pass through the leaves of the trees, watch the red tailed hawks as they soar through the sky and sometimes be surprised by deer as they forage for food. Every season is gorgeous and I feel lucky that I have such a beautiful spot to sit and think and write.
D.T.: What kind of research did you have to do during the writing process?
D.D.: I spent months in the Toronto Reference Library, reading old magazines and researching newspapers from 1939. I also spent time at the reference library at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education where I was allowed to look through teaching materials used in 1939. I wandered around the Toronto Islands, saw the footprint of all the old summer mansions that used to exist on Centre Island, imagined the stores and shops on Manitou Avenue and spent time on the beach at Hanlan’s Point looking at the Toronto skyline. I studied old photographs at Toronto Archives so I could get a feel for the clothes, cars, and architecture of the period. Best of all, I took dance lessons so I could learn the Lindy Hop and the West Coast Swing.
D.T.: What was your greatest challenge writing this book?
D.D.: Cutting was my major challenge. The book was 800 pages or more when I finished and originally a series of journals that Charlotte kept during her travels. I hopscotched between time periods and there were far too many characters. Ann Ireland edited the book and helped me make sense of it. I wrote many drafts and got rid of several characters. Ann told me I had to cut every single thing that did not drive the plot forward and this meant cutting many of the scenes I had the most fun writing.
D.T.: Are you a disciplined writer?
D.D.: I am disciplined but I don’t kept to a rigorous schedule. I finish what I start and if it takes longer than I originally intended, so be it. There are days when, try as I might, I can’t write anything worth keeping, and I accept this as part of the process.
D.T.: Who is your publisher and how did you get accepted by them? Did you pitch your book yourself or go through an agent?
D.D.: I am a self-published author. Friesen Press is my publisher and they are wonderful. Everyone who worked on the book did a great job.
D.T.: How are you promoting your book thus far?
D.D.: Friesen Press set up a Weebly page for me. I also have a Face Book page linked to this site with reviews by Clarion and Kirkus. I have an author’s page on Amazon and am busy filling out a number of questionnaires for a virtual book tour organized by Charlie Barrett, the book publicist I hired.
D.T.: Do you have another job besides writing?
D.D.: I am retired from teaching and am now a part-time student.
D.T.: If you could give one book promotion tip to new authors, what would that be?
D.D.: Hire a publicist.
D.T.: What’s next for you?
D.D.: I have begun work on the next book in The Tower Room series. The working title is Falling and the story takes place in Queenston, Ontario during the War of 1812.
D.T.: Thank you for this interview, Dawn. We wish you much success! You can pick up your copy of A Tree of Life at Amazon.